N.C. State’s losses to Virginia Tech and North Carolina won’t keep the Wolfpack out of the NCAA tournament.
Losses in the next two games -- at Syracuse on Wednesday and at Wake Forest on Saturday -- likely will.
That’s where the Wolfpack’s season is with six ACC regular-season games to play.
N.C. State (16-9, 6-6 ACC) has proven itself to be a tournament caliber team, and first-year coach Kevin Keatts isn’t afraid to tout his team’s unexpected accomplishments.
“We have become a very good basketball team,” Keatts said. “You don’t accidentally beat the likes of Arizona, Duke, Carolina and Clemson the way they are playing this year.”
Those four wins are why the Wolfpack has a chance to play in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2015. In neither of the last two seasons has NC State had more overall or league wins as it does this season.
As Keatts reminded everyone on Saturday following the Wolfpack’s 96-89 loss to North Carolina at PNC Arena, his team was picked to finish 12th in the ACC this season.
With six games to go, N.C. State is in eighth place.
“Our expectations coming into the season from people outside the program were pretty much low, obviously being picked 12th,” Keatts said. “Now we’ve put ourselves in a situation where we are playing the top teams in the country and we are right there to win the games. Now I have to get these guys to change their expectations. I don’t want them to get to the point where they are satisfied with how many wins that we have won right now.”
Seniors forwards Lennard Freeman and Abdul-Malik Abu are the only remaining players who have played in the NCAA tournament with the Wolfpack. . Guard Allerik Freeman played in the tournament with Baylor before coming to N.C. State as a graduate transfer this season.
All three are playing their final seasons of college basketball. This is their last chance to get to the tournament again.
“Y’all are going to see moving forward that we can compete and beat anybody in the country,” Abu said. “We already have some big-time wins. We just have to focus on learning and getting better from these mistakes. You can ask anybody on our team. We don’t feel like we lost it. We feel like we gave it away.”
The problems in the 85-75 loss at Virginia Tech on Feb. 7 and Saturday’s setback against North Carolina were on the defensive end.
The Hokies scored 56 of their points in the paint. UNC tallied 60, including 40 in the second half.
N.C. State scored 19 consecutive points against the Tar Heels in the first half and led 37-35 at halftime.
Yet UNC still handed N.C. State it’s second ACC loss in a row. UNC junior forward Luke Maye finished the game with 33 points and 17 rebounds .
“(Virginia Tech) was a little different,” Abu said after the UNC loss. “I felt like they lived in the paint on us. We didn’t really stop any dribble drives. This game, we got out-rebounded. Luke had a really good game. Not to say one player beats you but he played well. At the same time, we just have to defend better as a unit and make game-winning plays.”
That’s the point here. The losses to Virginia Tech and UNC don’t hurt by themselves but how N.C. State lost them will hurt if those things continue to happen in future weeks.
UNC won the rebounding battle 41-24 for the game while it shot 78.1 percent in the second half.
Syracuse (16-8, 5-6 ACC), N.C. State’s next opponent, clamps down its foes with a 2-3 zone. Wake Forest (9-15, 2-10 ACC) sits near the bottom of the league standings but N.C. State had to score the final 11 points to rally past the Demon Deacons 72-63 in Raleigh on Jan. 18.
N.C. State is capable of winning both of those games and strengthening its NCAA tournament resume. Keatts needs his team to believe that, and he spent extra time in the postgame locker room telling them that.
“My message to those guys moving forward,” Keatts said, “is you have to figure out now how not to beat yourself.”
In N.C. State’s final six games, five are against teams it leads in the ACC standings. The opportunity to take care of business and get to the NCAA tournament is right there in front of the Wolfpack.